‘Help Wanted!” “Maine Businesses Facing Critical Work Shortage!” “Maine’s Population Oldest in the Country!” “Closed Due to Lack of Help!”

These signs and headlines are not uncommon, as employers from Kittery to Madawaska and Fryeburg to Eastport are telling us they are desperate for workers and as our young people leave the state for opportunities elsewhere. The impacts are widespread, from construction contractors struggling to find workers to pave roads to nonprofits struggling to find workers to staff group homes and reduce waitlists for critical services.

This workforce shortage is one of the most serious long-term issues facing our state, and state government is working on its first long-term economic development plan in decades and engaging people of all ages and abilities to stay in Maine and join or rejoin the workforce.

There is one group of people who are willing to work if we are willing to have them.

Nearly all are families with children, people who have walked thousands of miles and braved war and brutal weather to get here, people who want to work, want to raise their families, and want to live free, they are waiting here in Maine, at our doorstep.

They are victims of domestic violence, those exposed to human trafficking, those who fought terrorism in their country of origin, those who have protected freedom, those who lost children, children who lost parents. They are people with skills, education and ability, people with a proven work ethic and tremendous drive – and they are just waiting for the chance to work.

Four years ago, Republican State Sen. Amy Volk recognized this opportunity by proposing legislative language which would allow this unique population — people seeking asylum in our state — to feed, house and clothe their families before they are allowed to become employed under federal law. It passed the Republican-controlled Senate (29-5) and it became law.

In the rule-making process, however, the previous administration narrowly construed the law and prevented nearly all of these people from accessing emergency assistance — food and shelter — during the application process and required waiting period. Senator Volk made the point at the time that the administration’s interpretation was inconsistent with the law.

Since taking office I have been asked to review and revise the rule under this part of the General Assistance law. After giving it much thought, my Department of Health and Human Services, in consultation with the Attorney General’s Office, has reformulated the rule to comport with the intent of the law, encouraging individuals to pursue a lawful process of asylum in the courts or with the federal immigration service, and, at the same time, providing our towns, cities and property owners the ability to house families while they wait for their paperwork from the federal government.

The amended rule includes common-sense requirements that the individuals provide proof of their legal status. Assistance is time-limited and, as with all General Assistance benefits, they must reapply – and demonstrate need – every month. Help does not come in the form of cash, but in vouchers used to purchase basic items like food, medications, housing, and other essential services from select vendors.

This amended rule assists cash-strapped municipalities dealing with an unexpected influx of people, and it motivates all families who are lawfully present in our state to complete every step on the path to asylum and, hopefully, on the path to citizenship.

We who were born and raised in Maine sometimes make fun of “people from away,” while we complain that our state is getting older and that it is increasingly difficult to do business here.

Let’s put an end to the complaints, put aside the politics, and do the logical thing – welcome a workforce that is right on our doorstep and put them on the path to employment to build and strengthen our economy.

Headlines in the coming years should read: “Maine Businesses Thrive With A Growing Workforce!”

— Special to the Press Herald


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